Friday, 25 May 2012

Friend of animals

The forests once more cover the lands, from coast to mountain in every direction. Two thousand seasons have come and two thousand seasons have gone, acorns grown to saplings and thence to mighty tree.

Fed by sun, rain and the great corpsefields, the forests grew and the memory of the deed that was done faded. The treeherders roam far and wide, the threat of axe and fire long faded from this world. In the shadow of the boughs, joyous birdsong fills the world, a choir to please the ear of every elf and wizard.

Yet I still recall the day of the great council and a night never passes without dreams of what could have been had my journey been delayed. There were great tidings brought to me on the wings of my friends, bestirring me to leave the long watch at Rhosgobel. The great evil had been banished from this world and the race of orcs broken on the field of battle. Human, dwarf and elf had stood together and some even sang of hobbit-deeds of bravery and endurance. It was a time of great change, the end of an age and an opportunity to set the great ship of history on a new course.

When I arrived at the council the elves were talking of sailing west, making room for the age of man and letting their race fade from memory. The treesingers had grown weary and sought peace in exile, with hope that mankind could grow and mature, to become stewards of the east. Truly the elven capacity for self-delusion was amazing and at first the shock at such dereliction of duty nearly sent me fleeing back to the vales of Anduin.

It was that night that Corvus came to me. Long had he served as my eyes in the south, a trusted friend and true heart. His wings were sooty black, not just of feather but also with ash from the pyres of the orcs, and his tales of human deeds were of equally dark nature. He spoke of the strife among the different races of men, how great numbers of them had sworn loyalty to the shadow. He reminded me of how easily the old kings of man had fallen, to become wraiths that scoured the land, and spoke of a new king that had made alliance with the dead of ages past.

Corvus spoke also of the Mûmakil, great tusked beasts and wisest among all my friends, that had been forced to serve in war by man and now lay slain on Pelennor Fields. The herds that once roamed Harad had been reduced by the ravages of man and it became clear to me that in just a few short centuries our majestic friends would no longer shake the earth with their passing.

By dawn, my mind was fixed on the task ahead. Fiery words sang in my mind and I knew that tomorrow would be neither autumn nor winter for the elves, but that they would rise to my challenge and embrace a new spring. I knew that the first singers had not been forgotten in these halls and that if I could evoke their spirit then the elves would rally to my cause.

Six days and six nights the council argued, some crying for what had been lost and others for what might never come. Many had set their minds, one foot already on the ships to the west. Others were less certain and could hear the reason in my voice. Iron, fire and strife were the signs of both man and orc, two sides of the same coin. Death and despair ever walked at the side of man, to think otherwise was madness.

To leave man as stewards of the east was to condemn the forests and animals to extinction or servitude. War would consume the lands until one day man found the means to sail west in pursuit of new lands to destroy. What then would remain for elvenkind but eternal damnation, having forgotten the song and their duty? On the sixth night, as the stars glimmered above, the decision was made.

The leaders of man were summoned, given guidance and encouragement. It was announced that the elven hosts would leave, set sail for the lands of the setting sun. A great celebration was held, a coronation and a wedding sealed the pact and gifts were solemnly exchanged.

Twelve great founts were brought forth by the elves, gifts of parting to the new stewards of the land. From each there flowed, on call, all the food and water a man might need, sufficient to feed a city of any size. The tendency for man to huddle together and live in great proximity was well known and this gift suited them well, for it would free them of the labour of the fields.

In the years to come, mankind continued to till some fields and keep some animals for they did not fully trust the power of the founts. There was ever a minority who sought to keep apart and sustain themselves, but over the years suspicion eased and the easy life offered by flocking to one of the great fount cities, as they were now known, became irresistible to most.

Fields lay fallow for a time, but as the seasons turned they became overgrown and became lost from sight. Years passed and cities grew, becoming ever more vast with stone covering the old fields as roads, monuments and buildings sprang up. Generations passed and man began to forget the lessons of agriculture, relying ever more fully on the founts even as their numbers grew beyond reckoning.

Then came the day when the founts produced nothing but ash. At first they thought that it was only temporary and they called wise men to determine how to restore the flow of food and water. When their spells and prayers failed to bring forth sustenance there was a great panic and people fled, seeking to make their way to other cities that might yet have a working fount.

As hosts of refugees met in the wild, rumours travelled far and wide. Some claimed that all the founts had failed, that mankind was cursed and abandoned by the gods. Others claimed that at least one fount was still working but that the city controlling it was keeping it for their own exclusive use. Truth, as always among men, became irrelevant as the first among them drew steel and slew a man from another city.

The slaughter that took place over the next few months was far beyond anything seen in the war of the ring. Blood turned rivers red and fields were lined with corpses over distances beyond reckoning. To sustain themselves for battle the warriors turned to feasting on the red meat of their enemies, bathing themselves in blood and chanting to dark gods for strength and victory. Among the elvenkind, any doubt about the virtue of man was removed when those rituals were revealed by farseeing stones.

When winter came the hardship among men became so great that not one in a thousand survived. Hunting and gathering sustained a few, cannibalism lent strength to others but despair and hunger stole the strength from the multitudes and they lay down to a rest from which they never awoke. The spirit of man had been broken irrevocably.

With the first spring rain, the elven hosts landed on the eastern shores again. Their splendour was great, a host such as had not been seen since the first age. United by desire to wipe the stain of humanity from middle earth, they marched forth with spears shining in the sunlight. The campaign would last less than a year as the remaining bands of mankind were destroyed on the field of battle or hunted like animals in the forests and mountains.

Thus my plan was brought to fruition and the brief interregnum was ended. The kings of man had enjoyed prosperity in the absence of the great shadow and the elvenhost, but had shown their true nature and been punished for it. It would take two thousand seasons before the last of the human cities sank beneath the canopy of the vast forests, but the ship of history was firmly on the new course I had plotted.

Birds and animals roam free once again, free from harness and fear of the hunter's arrow. The great trees provide shade and shelter, with elf and treeherder lending a guiding hand when needed though their numbers remain few. The lessons of ages past has been well learned and the world shall forever remain free of the taint of the plow and forge. The nightmare of the taming of the lands and rise of industry has been banished for eternity, replaced with the the free spirit of the wild.

Mankind lives on only in my dreams and memories, indistinct and foggy reminders that evoke the haze that ever gathered over their camps and cities. Sometimes Corvus speaks to me of them, warning me that just as orcs and man once rose out of obscurity others could come. Perhaps the dwarves might one day leave their mines and use their mastery of fire to destroy the vast forests. Corvus counsels me to craft a ring and store much of my essence in it, thereby ensuring my immortality and also enhancing my powers. Only through such means can I truly ensure that this age will last forever.

I am Radagast of Many Colours, friend of animals.


This is a non-commercial derivative work, written for the RPG challenge. Apologies to the late J.R.R. Tolkien for borrowing one of his characters without permission.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Flanking and facing

DnD combat plays very much like a tactical war game and, as in many tactical games, flanking is an important concept. In the real world this is a tactic where you attack a foe from several directions so that he or she can not effectively defend. While distracted or busy parrying an attack from the front the combatant can easily be cut down from the side or rear by an unseen opponent.

So how was flanking implemented in DnD 4e? Well, take a look at the picture below and consider if the defender (with a green cloak in the centre) might be suffering unseen attacks and struggle to parry attacks from multiple directions. Has the defender been flanked in this example?

In DnD, the answer is no - this is not a flanking situation. The defender gets full defences against all the attackers and none of the attackers gain Combat Advantage (an important concept in DnD which gives +2 to hit and triggers extra effects from many feats and powers).

To flank in DnD the attackers would have to be on directly opposite sides of the defender. The number of attackers doesn't matter and facing doesn't exist so you can never be behind anybody. The defender effectively has 360 degree vision and can spin around instantly to deflect or dodge every attack.

For what otherwise plays like a tactical war game, this is a somewhat odd design decision in my opinion.

Next, consider the second situation shown below.

Here the attackers have wisely taken positions on opposite sides of their target. Although there is only two of them to worry about the defender will now struggle to defend himself or herself, granting combat advantage to both attackers. In the previous example attackers were spread out in the wider 270 degree approach, but the rule set allows only the 180 degree approach to generate advantage seen here.

Not only can the defender no longer spin around to parry, dodge and deflect blows from multiple directions, but there is also no choice to ignore one combatant and focus on defending against the other. Both attackers always gain combat advantage.

This has important implications in fights where there is a great disparity in threat levels between different opponents. No matter how insignificant the threat of the lesser opponent is, as long as it can attack and is in a flanking position you can not ignore it and focus on the more dangerous opponent.

Note that this also holds true even if the lesser combatant is actually fighting somebody else than the flanked defender. Position and capability are required, but actual action is not needed.

If DnD wants to embrace tactical game play the designers would do well to consider adding facing in the next edition, with the associated rules for real flank and rear attacks. Combining this with reasonable rules for parrying and shields would address the inconsistencies and counter-intuitive situations as well as let players make critical decisions about when it is ok to turn your back on a minor threat in order to focus on a greater threat.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Tactical movement

Tactical movement speed in DnD is typically in the range of 5 to 7 points per turn. There is no facing and therefore no turning cost. Most squares cost 1 point to enter, with difficult terrain doubling the cost to 2 per square.

The commonly used movement actions are walk (base speed), run (speed + 2) and charge.

You may want to read that again.

Walking is a gait where one foot is always in contact with the ground. Typical walking speeds are around 5 kilometres per hour. By contrast, running humans have a top speed (world record) of 44.72 km/h. That is nine times faster than walking!

This is of course over a short distance and without being encumbered, but even cutting it to a more reasonable 20 km/h would mean running is four times faster than walking. However in game terms, a speed 6 human runs at speed 8, a mere 33% increase. This is painfully gamist for anybody who bothers to engage his brain for a moment to consider the design choices made.

Walking in DnD
Running as fast as you can in DnD

Arguments that this is based on the action split between move and combat activity (such as parrying or attacking) will fail to convince as the same 33% increase applies when doing nothing but moving. Double move at walk speed would achieve a speed of 12, while a double move at run speed would reach 16 speed - this is the same 33% difference.

This can be contrasted with the design in a simulationist game, where the fastest movement speed is five times the base walking speed. A character moving at 15 metres per round (50 feet) at walk speed can dash 75 metres per round (250 feet). This is a far closer match to reality and thus much more believable and the difference is obvious in the illustrations below.

Walking in a simulationist game
Dash in a simulationist game
 More after the break.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Future of copyright update

Today I got a really nice surprise in my email from the folks behind the Future of Copyright initiative:

We are proud to announce, that finally we selected 10 works which will make it to our „Future of copyright” book. Winner is among them, but you need to wait just a little bit more – jury is still deciding. Here are works we have selected, in alphabetic order:
  • Jesse Betteridge „The Brick in Room 207”
  • Reuben Binns „History of Copyright 2012-Present”
  • Eddie „In Session”
  • Mike Linksvayer „Future of Copyright”
  • Aymeric Mansoux „Morphology of a copyright tale”
  • Alf Melin „Remote Kill”
  • Carlos Solís „Blurred – a utopian story”
  • Roland Spitzlinger „Future of Copyright”
  • Togi „Give”
  • Jarosław Żyła „Heritage of ACTA”

Congratulations to everybody who was selected!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Retro board game - Fortress America

Published by Milton Bradley in 1986 using a design by Michael Gray, Fortress America is a kitschy thematic wargame that covers the invasion of the U.S.A by socialist armies from Asia, South America and Europe. Only the northern map edge remains safely neutral as Canada refrains from entering the general US-bashing.

All invaders have identical order of battle but choose reinforcement order after turn 1

While outnumbered and attacked from nearly every direction the U.S. forces have the advantage of partisans and other reinforcements through event cards as well as solar-powered lasers that gradually come into play. The invaders hold the initial advantage and must advance quickly to defeat the U.S.A. before lasers can weaken their forces.

However, if the U.S. is defeated then individual victory goes to the invader that has captured the most cities (10 victory points), lasers (5 VP) and resource territories (3 VP). This can lead to rivalry and open warfare between invaders.

It had been at least 15 years since I played the game and I remembered it as being fairly good fun for 4 players, with the U.S. player relying on a strategy of trading space for time while trying to get the invaders to fight each other.

The invaders must grab cities to defeat the U.S. and also want to take out lasers as quickly as possibly (they are built in cities only), with resource territories a distant tertiary objective. They must also consider supply lines and the risk of partisans appearing as well as the possibility of another invader striking at them.

U.S. forces are spread thin as the invasion begins - no partisans or lasers are in play
Recently I had the opportunity to play it again, although only with 3 players (necessitating that one player take on the role of both Asian and European invader). The game turned out to last very long, turning into an unusual protracted battle with huge swings in the number of controlled cities. The invaders regularly pushed the U.S. into loss territory, but could not hold against counter attacks and the game only ends if the U.S. holds less than 13 cities at the end of their turn.

After it finally ended with a victory for the invaders we talked about the high points of the game, the mistakes, the strategy and so on. A couple of points that stood out:

  • The use of dice from D6 through D10 but keeping the target number to destroy an enemy unit constant (always 5 or 6 depending on terrain) is really efficient for quick combat resolution. It avoids addition and subtraction, consisting instead of a fast sort that all players can do easily.
  • The combination of combined arms to overcome terrain penalties and the targeting system makes for interesting battles with calculated risk taking.
  • The supply rules rarely seem to come into play, partially due to map scale and layout and partially because of the balance of forces. However, when out of supply does occur it can change the board immensely.
  • It is unclear if the deck of cards can be reshuffled and used again. We played it as 'when you run out, you get no more reinforcements'. This puts a constraint on U.S. forces (60 + the card effects) similar to the invader limit (60 each). In a long game this means a battle of attrition can be won by the invaders if they can destroy lasers quickly enough.
  • The rules are written quite verbosely, but are clear and don't seem to suffer from any obvious exploits or other issues.
Few U.S. cities remain but partisans fight back and threaten invader supply lines

One thing that all players agreed on was that it was actually excellent fun and if the game hadn't taken so long I expect we might have had a re-match immediately. I've re-rated the game an 8 out of 10 on Boardgamegeek after this play, previously I had it down as a more average 6 out of 10.

I think the game is getting a re-release sometime in 2012. It might well be worth checking it out, do not mistake it for a R.I.S.K. type game - this is good fun with quick game play and does not devolve into 'biggest stack' type strategy.

U.S. forces are reduced to mostly isolated bands of partisans

Monday, 14 May 2012

Evolution of roleplaying tools

When I first started with roleplaying games 30 years ago a typical adventure would have a simple graph paper view of the place being explored, most often a cave or other underground complex. This guided movement, but combat usually took place mostly in the imagination of the participant. The scale of the map did not really encourage tactical movement and there were few conditions to track.

As games became more tactically oriented it became more important to use miniatures or other tokens to track activity, line of sight and other battlefield considerations. As printed 2D maps were prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to create the most common solution was a dry erase grid.

When insufficient miniatures were available it was common to substitute in other items, with predictably confusing results.

Chainmail Bikini © Shamus Young and Shawn Gaston
Continued after the break

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The older the fiddler, the sweeter the tune

And today the fiddler is a year older, although still only a young forty which is no age at all compared to the Sunland Baobab or Prometheus.

Here is a self-portrait to mark the day.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Word clouds

Since October last year I've been doing an interdisciplinary (politics and economics) course with the Open University. Tonight I submitted the last essay for the ongoing assessment, below is the word cloud for that essay.

The two stand-out words for me were 'et' and 'al', it looks like I quoted multiple-author works a lot.

I wonder if it is possible to string together any cohesive story or argument using each of the words in the cloud just once.